If you’re unsure about the man (or woman) you’re dating, go and see this film. It’ll cause rifts in a weak relationship, and yield powerful debate – or perhaps agreement on the central themes – in a strong one. It asks men to defend or disown the role of hero, and begs us to consider whether motherhood naturally graces its host with more altruistic instincts than fatherhood. Who’s braver: men or women? Or, let’s cut to the chase, you or me? At the core of this slick and sometimes hilarious Swedish film by Ruben Östlund is the non-rhetorical question: when push comes to shove, what would you do?
I’ve always been a believer in the universal – and the humorous – springing from the particular. And Force Majeure begins in a very particular way indeed. A perfect-looking, undeniably Swedish-seeming family are on a French ski holiday, staying in a minimalist luxury hotel. The parents, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), are as easy in English as in French. Clothed in simple, expensive skiwear, they are in superb physical shape. Their two kids are cute, if sulky; pale thin little things clothed equally immaculately as their parents. What luck the family has: the up-close shots of snowflakes coming thick and fast, snow canons blasting at full throttle, wide open snow fields and silky groomed slopes all suggest perfect conditions. Perfect family cohesion, too. In their soft voices, the parents coddle the kids even when they whine, and they nap all together sometimes, as we see them do after the first day’s skiing.
But while these scenes are meticulously unfolded, Östlund’s preparing the way for trouble. Sharp bursts of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – a chilly arrangement of ‘Summer’ – accompany close-ups of snow cannons, creating a surprisingly enjoyable mixture of foreboding and the urge to chuckle. The snow is made to look menacing. The family pass out of the hotel to the lift on a ski travelator which creaks disturbingly. And then there are the booms for creating controlled avalanches.
On day two, the family are sitting at a high-altitude chalet terrace for a spot of lunch when a roar can be heard. An avalanche, in great thunderous waves of snow, becomes visible, cascading towards the terrace. ‘Is it safe?’ asks Ebba. Tomas waves her concerns away: ‘They know what they’re doing’. Meanwhile, he’s busy filming the spectacular scene. But the avalanche keeps hurtling towards them, Ebba’s questions about safety getting more and more urgent, until the exploding hurtling snow reaches a point of no return and everyone runs for it.
Everyone, that is, apart from Ebba, who is left trying to haul the children to safety. Lifting three pairs of snow-boots and two children makes it hard to run, though she does somehow manage to stow them out of harm’s way. Tomas takes a different course of action. That course of action is the real bang in the film, from which an avalanche of doubt and destruction – certainly not controlled – follows.
Watching the blandly handsome, placid features of Tomas and the chiselled, tense face of Ebba become quivering masks in a game of recrimination and guilt is a lot more fun than you’d think, partly helped along by the appearance of some semi-comic but utterly believable friends, a gigantic bearded divorcee and his 20-year old hippy barmaid girlfriend, who find themselves drawn into the epicentre of the couple’s trouble.
The film is meaty, handing us big themes – masculinity crisis, the (under-tested) survival instincts of the modern middle-class person, parenthood – on a plate. Was Östlund also critiquing Swedish society? Tomas and Ebba’s extreme competence is, after all, combined with a curious hollowness, a shell-like quality even in the extremes of emotion, that made me wonder. In Tomas’s case, at least, the shell is thoroughly smashed – if only temporarily.